Genetically targeted ablation and regeneration of motor neurons in the zebrafish spinal cord
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Injury and degenerative disease of the central nervous system (CNS) are among the major causes for disabilities in humans. They result in permanent damage that is not repaired by regenerative processes. In contrast, anamniotes like fish and amphibia display a striking potential for successful regeneration in the CNS. The zebrafish (Danio rerio) has been established as a model for successful regeneration after spinal cord injury. However, it is yet unknown which factors are involved in regeneration after spinal lesions and other insults to the CNS. Focusing on motor neurons, I asked whether regeneration can also be observed in larval zebrafish. This would allow to take advantage of their accessibility to live imaging, pharmacological and genetic manipulation. It is unknown, whether the loss of a specific cell type in the absence of injury, which is reminiscent of the pathological change observed in neurodegenerative diseases, would be sufficient to induce regeneration. Comparing the regenerative response after spinal lesion to that after selective neuronal cell loss would allow to identify factors that act as a trigger for regeneration, e.g. mechanical injury signals, the extent of cell death or microglia activation. To address these questions, an experimental paradigm in which motor neurons can be selectively ablated without the need to inflict tissue damage would prove useful. Key findings of this work are: · Motor neuron generation ceases during early larval developmental stages. · The Nitroreductase system can be used for successful ablation of motor neurons in the larval spinal cord. · New motor neurons are generated in a regenerative response to both targeted ablation of motor neurons and spinal lesion in larval zebrafish after cessation of developmental generation of MNs. To test whether larval zebrafish can be used to analyse motor neuron regeneration, I carried out a birthdating study to establish a developmental time line for motor neuron generation in the spinal cord. The end of developmental motor neuron generation at an early time point, at around 54 hours post fertilisation, allows for the use of larval zebrafish to assess the regenerative response after insults to the spinal cord. In addition, I could show a time dependent role for Hedgehog signalling during the generation of a motor neuron subpopulation. The influence of Hedgehog is diminished before the end of motor neurogenesis. Utilizing the Gal4/UAS system to combine the Nitroreductase‐mCherry fusion protein expressing Tg(UAS:nfsB‐mCherry) with the motor neuron specific driver Tg(hb9:Gal4), I generated a new transgenic zebrafish line for the genetically targeted ablation of motor neurons. In the resulting transgenic fish, the administration of the prodrug Metronidazole induces apoptotic cell death in ~25% of spinal motor neurons leading to impaired motor performance and increased numbers of microglia in the spinal cord. My work shows that larval animals subjected to motor neuron ablation or spinal lesion display a regenerative response detected by increased numbers of newborn motor neurons. Importantly, this happens after developmental production of motor neurons has ceased, suggesting that progenitor cells are reverting to the generation of motor neurons. The data presented shows that in larval zebrafish, the selective loss of motor neurons is sufficient to induce a regenerative response in the spinal cord. The increased numbers of microglial profiles in the spinal cord after both spinal lesion and targeted cell ablation indicates a role for the immune system in mediating a regenerative response. This new targeted cell ablation paradigm in larval zebrafish will allow to identify and characterize the progenitor cell population forming new motor neurons. One can then further investigate how specific loss of motor neurons is sensed and which factors contribute to the activation of the endogenous stem cell populations. Using larval zebrafish has many benefits, as they are accessible to pharmacological testing with small molecules and live imaging. Moreover, the combination of additional transgenic reporter lines will allow for the investigation of single cell behaviour during regeneration.